Introduction: Language and Sexuality—Intruders in the Nacht(räglichkeit)
There is a social dimension that is not to be overlooked in Lacan’s famous stipulation “Il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel“. “Rapport”, after all, also means “report“, or even “testimony“. There can be no “relation” but also (or, as Jean-Luc Nancy would have it, rather) there can be no telling of this (non) relation. However, this report or telling is exactly what is asked for in public speech acts produced in the wake of #MeToo. What are the promises and what are the pitfalls when speaking from and about the sexed body and its lived experience? And how can this singular speech be absorbed in collective speech? Five years after the hashtag first appeared, this entanglement keeps forcing us as psychoanalysts to confront what is at the core of psychoanalysis, that which is, strictly speaking, the trauma: that we are both speaking and sexual beings. How do we address these intruders —language and sexuality?
Language inscribes, thereby giving us a body that we can have rather than a body that we are. There is the real body that we are, which is to say the lived body, Leib in phenomenology as opposed to the imaginary/symbolic body that we “have” but not in the sense that we “possess” it, since we cannot always control it, and we might even lose it. Debates around abortion often aim at a negotiation of this relation in activist rallying slogans “Our bodies, ourselves”,
or “My womb belongs to me!” (“Mein Bauch gehört mir!”).
Going further, we note that as much as the old trope of the wandering womb speaks something of the specificity of hysteria, it also hints at the womb as object of social exchange. The womb wanders beyond the body, politically it is made to do so, and in that migration to and fro, it deconstructs our notions of how the body might be possessed, and signals the possibility of its loss; a loss made all too real now in the face of the right wing assault on women’s bodies in the United States. Which is a way of asking: what body are we left with in this moment? A body overwritten by the symbolic now at odds with itself? A dropping of the relationship with the body, à la Joyce (per Lacan)? In either and in all cases, what are the implications for the clinic? What is this body that speaks now? What kind of speaking takes place in a moment where symbolic degradation of speech and a distrust of the Other have taken root as fundamental features of the contemporary psychic landscape? Far be it for us to dismantle political slogans by means of Lacanian theory; the slogan in its brevity serves its own purpose. But we should look for the desire expressed in those refrains.
The body cannot be “closed off”—this impossibility constitutes a biological fact in the case of the ear, but it also addresses the ways in which the body is exposed to the gaze and the signifier. This exposure on the one hand produces a mortification of the body, but also impacts the body, unsettling it by engendering effects of jouissance. With this in mind, we are traversing a space between singular trauma and systemic violence: a shocking encounter (of being addressed, looked at, touched) that brings forth a subjected position—this does not happen consciously; there is no concurrent understanding of this process of a subject (of the unconscious) coming into being as a result of language. Here is one such scene of “forced feminine subjectivation” from Simone de Beauvoirs Le deuxième sèxe—to a large extent basically a collection of them, “#MeToo moments”, if you will:
All of a sudden the child becomes modest, she will not expose herself naked . . . she inspects herself with mingled astonishment and horror… Something is taking place… a struggle, a laceration…Under her sweater or blouse her breasts make their display, and this body which the girl has identified with herself now appears to her as flesh; it is an object that others see and pay attention to… Still another woman told me this: ‘At thirteen I was taking a walk, wearing a short dress and with my legs bare. A man, chuckling, made some comment on my large calves. Next day my mother had me wear stockings and lengthen my skirts, but I shall never forget the sudden shock I felt at being seen naked.
#MeToo scenes, having become so ubiquitous since November 2017, seem to have one thing in common: they, however “belatedly,” make too much sense as they suddenly relegate women—often from a perspective of a general accomplishment of ‘equality’—to their position. This is a historically charged position as it carries a prospective truth: “this is how it has been and how it will always be.” Beauvoir repeatedly describes the process of becoming-woman as a realization of a “curse”. Interestingly, the original term is “malédiction” which stresses the (deictic) moment of speech, the diction. Is it a signifier or is it speech (non/nom-du-père as opposed to the subject of the enunciated)? This dimension of fateful speech is what Iracema Dulley recounts in her essay in this Feature section, “The Voice in Rape”, in which she traces the congruence of singular history and systemic violence and of the Real in the form of a revolting body trying to eject the words it has been fed involuntarily.
The specific temporality of this “cursed” experience is captured by Penelope Deutscher who, commenting on Beauvoir’s case presentation, muses on this making-too-much-sense of the sudden:
the apparent suddenness makes sense of longstanding patterns, and its horror is imbued with retroactive meaning. Suddenness is most shocking as sudden when it is not sudden, when it catches a sequence of exchanges and meanings, rearranging them in light of the event.
If trauma is to be understood as the wound which cannot be integrated, the—often quite trivial seeming—#MeToo scenes can be integrated all-too-well. An accumulation of them is what seems to make one “become a woman”.
On April 5th, 1971, the French weekly magazine Le nouvel observateur published a petition signed by 343 women, the Manifeste des 343, in which the signees admitted to having had an abortion, a procedure which was illegal in France at the time. Two months later, on June 6th, the German news magazine Stern published a title story under the headline “Wir haben abgetrieben” (“We’ve had abortions”). In both cases, a number of women, some of them celebrities (Simone de Beauvoir among them) formed a “we” under which they confessed to one thing—the same thing. There was no catalog of individual accounts accompanying the list of names. And, as was later revealed, that would not have been possible as not all the women who signed had in fact had abortions. “It doesn’t matter whether we did it. We have thought about it on many occasions and would do it if we had to” What they had in common, was the demand to abolish the §218, which stated that abortions were unlawful, along with demands for an absorption of the procedure’s costs by the National health insurance, as well as free access to sex education and contraceptives.
A collective self-accusation as a means of passive resistance? This collective “we” challenged the authorities: “Will you dare arrest Romy Schneider? Jeanne Moreau? Marguerite Duras?” Yet it was not solely the star power that protected these women, it was their sheer number. This collective act of public confession should be viewed as a precursor to #MeToo. The promise of these speech acts may in many cases constitute not so much a transformation of the self but a transformation of society, thereby addressing the ever-pressing question: How does one get from the “I” to the “We”?
In the opening remarks of Le Deuxième Sexe, first published in 1949, Simone de Beauvoir voices her reluctance in writing what turned out to be an oeuvre of some 1000 pages: “For a long time, I have hesitated to write a book on women. The voicing of hesitation, careful assessment (along with that of shame), constitutes a crucial part of the confessional as Foucault defines it. We see a “shifter” in action here: the “I” that has hesitated and the “I” that is writing. She is producing a position from which to speak while at the same time resisting it. Maybe we will be reminded of the back and forth sometimes found in social media testimonies and the wandering womb (“I have debated whether to write this…”). But it speaks also to the problem of the grounds from which her philosophy emerges: “man” needs no further elaborations on his site of enunciation—he speaks for mankind (“les hommes”), his “I” is universal. In writing a book on women, doesn’t she intentionally exit the realm of the universal? What follows only a few pages in, is her declaration that “women do not say ‘We’ . While she is addressing a possible reason for political immobility, we might very well read this statement as a further hint to her own hesitation to implicate herself in this “we”. And indeed, feminists have accused her of writing about women without a sufficient sense of solidarity.
For Lacan, the question of women (plural) is a mathematical problem, one that calls for set theory. Silvia Lippi, in her text in this Feature section, “Feminism and Psychosis: Concerning the Delusion of Valerie Solanas”, underlines this choice between being a singular, insular, mystic (La femme barrée) or finding one’s place in a hysterical sisterhood, even becoming SCUM. For the latter option, we have to stray from Lacan and turn to what could be called the origin as well as the culmination of radical feminism: Valerie Solanas’ SCUM. There has been somewhat of a re-discovery of key texts of radical feminism in recent years. Younger feminists mine the works of Carla Lonzi, Shulamith Firestone, and Andrea Dworkin for example in order to find answers to issues which don’t cease to concern us: abortion, sex work, pornography, rape and sexual harassment, sexual orientation and gender identifications. To this day, we debate whether SCUM is a parodic text, pulling out all the stops of the manifesto form: polemics, hyperbole, irony. Or, whether SCUM is dead serious, and as such is to be read as a paranoid-schizophrenic delusion. Lippi tends towards the second interpretation. Freud did not have much to say about delusion but what he did say has allowed us the most essential insight: delusion is a creative solution for an insufferable dilemma.
Can we even afford to grapple with the question of “what does a woman want” at this point? Can she want anything if she is not even granted what she needs (in order to survive), namely an assurance that her reproductive rights will be defended? Writing this introduction at this crucial juncture in time, when a third of the male judges sitting on the U.S. Supreme Court have been accused of sexual assault, and who have sanctimoniously decided to rescind a woman’s right of bodily self-determination, it would appear that we are in desperate need of creative solutions, both in and out of the clinic. Which drives home the point that there are direct links between transformations in the social field and what is truly available for working through in an analysis. It is difficult for anyone to speak their desire, most especially when the threat of violence and bodily harm is ever-present as a basic fact of life. Our intention is not to reify some Maslowian pyramid of needs, but instead to underline the fact that the clinic is always subject itself to grander social forces that are at play in any given moment. Bearing the above in mind, it is worthwhile to consider Nancy Hollander’s adroit remarks (formulated with life under the Chilean military dictatorship in mind) in her classic work, Love in a Time of Hate:
Identification with the aggressor was an important defense against the fear and anxiety stimulated by the continuous flow of disappearances and rumors of torture. For the witness/victim citizens who survived in the violence of everyday life, identification, at both the unconscious and conscious levels, with an arbitrary state power enacting its wrath on the desaparecidos permitted them to symbolically choose victims outside of themselves to sacrifice….Violent impulses…could be thus projected onto the socially created scapegoat, who would then be destroyed.
It would seem foolhardy to assume that nothing of the sort is happening now in the context of the brutal rightwing assault on women’s bodies that is currently in play. As clinicians, we know the enormous power that unconscious identifications wield in the lives of our patients, especially if we bear in mind the social context that supports their development and power. From Supreme Court ruling to the person laying on our couch speaking their dream, dismantling (or not) yet another fractal aspect of their identifications; a direct line reveals itself to our analytic ears. The gavel’s boom whispers its echo in the rarified confines of our consulting rooms.
This Feature section of EJP, through its various interventions, seeks to grapple with these contemporary challenges.
We invite other interventions in this new Feature. Please send submissions to: firstname.lastname@example.org